The U.S. stock market, despite setting all-time highs, is a piker among the world's markets in 1991.
Of the largest stock markets, Hong Kong is up 33 percent and Australia 30 percent. Among emerging markets, Argentina has gained 290 percent and Chile 117 percent.
Looking back over the past 20 years, best-performing markets have been Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore/Malaysia.
To put us further in our place, the number of stock markets keeps growing, with more than 90 now in existence. There are even fledgling exchanges in the Soviet Union.
"A couple of decades ago, international investing meant the United Kingdom, Canada or Australia, because most other markets were small, illiquid or heavily restricted, but there are now many non-English-speaking markets," observed Christian Wignall, chief investment officer for GT Capital Management in San Francisco, which runs international mutual funds.
"The biggest trend has been the inexorable rise of Japan, which in the late 1980s for a brief time actually had a market capitalization larger than the U.S."
The United States, which in the "good old days" boasted two-thirds of the world's market capitalization, is holding onto about 36 percent. That compares to Japan's 30 percent, the United Kingdom's 11 percent, Germany's 3.8 percent, France's 3.4 percent and Canada's 2.7 percent.
Rounding out the top 10 are Switzerland, the Netherlands, Australia and Hong Kong.
"The international investing game remains a fascinating but complicated business, since you're looking at a lot of different economies and variables such as foreign currency valuations," said David Warren, executive vice president with Rowe Price-Fleming International in London. He manages the Baltimore-based T. Rowe Price International Stock Fund.
Mutual funds generally offer U.S. investors the best opportunity to diversify through overseas holdings. Unfortunately, some new markets are still bush league.
"Russia and Eastern Europe over time will offer stock investment opportunities, but, as is the case with other communist/socialist countries such as China and Vietnam, there are many unsolved questions as to property rights," said international money manager Marc Faber, whose firm Marc Faber Ltd. is based in Hong Kong.
"Until the issue of who owns what is solved, these countries won't attract the foreign investment they badly need."
Long-term potential is somewhat better in China, Faber believes, in that its economy is stronger, its standard of living is rising and there aren't the ethnic divisions of the Soviet Union. But the question about foreign investment is whether, when current leadership dies off, there will be a peaceful transition to a new, more liberal government or a painful power struggle.
The worst-performing stock market is Turkey, down 63 percent in 1991, according to the International Financial Corp. in Washington, the equity research arm of the World Bank. Turkey's problems are tied to the Gulf War and Kurdish refugees, as well as a loss of revenues from tourism and oil.
Another poor performer is Indonesia, the darling of the world's international investors two years ago but now down 44 percent.
Market volatility is often far greater overseas than in the United States.